Tara Lazar: Bring Out the ACT in CharACTer!


Tara Lazar

The curtain rises on your picture book manuscript. The audience, eyes wide, applauds with great anticipation. Is your three-act triumph ready?

As a former actress (sorry, no Academy Award credits to my name), I utilize my acting skills while writing. And you don’t have to be a practiced thespian in order to do so. Just think of the word “ACT” and its related words:

  • ACTion – how a character behaves
  • reACTion – how a character behaves to a specific situation
  • interACTion – how characters relate to each other

These are the three things your illustrator will be thinking about when they bring your picture book to life. So, you, as the main character’s puppeteer, should be thinking of these things as well. Not only thinking—but revealing—that your character exhibits a unique way of behaving.

Now, action is a tricky thing in picture books. You can’t describe everything away—remember, you’ve leaving the brushstrokes up to your illustrator. So what you have to dig for is emotion. Emotion informs actions. How you act when you’re happy is very different from how you act when you’re angry. Or afraid. Or lonely. Emotion will inform your illustrator and your readers.

Like Kathryn Erskine encouraged you to slip on your character’s shoes, I often stand up and act out the emotion—what the character is saying or doing—to see if it feels genuine. I say lines aloud and listen to the natural inflection of my voice. (Your family might think you’re crazy. But do it for your art.)

Then I pace through scenes. Is there something happening in each scene? If your character is standing still, in the same location, scene after scene, it makes for a boring book. There’s nothing new to illustrate each page turn. Going places or doing things is action.

Next, there’s reaction! Your character should be reacting to what’s happening. Is she nervous? Shy? Thrilled? Have you given your character something to work toward? To struggle through? The way your character reacts to the barriers in the story will make her unique and interesting.

For instance, in my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016), Norman is an unusual orangutan. When the young scientist in the story peels a banana, Norman freaks out! He screams! Noo-ooo-ooo! You’re ripping off that poor creature’s skin! And the illustrator’s sketch (which I just received this week!) shows Norman with a horrified expression. Norman’s reaction to the banana informs the reader that he’s not an ordinary animal.

Finally, how your characters relate to each other also serves your story well. Are they friends or enemies? How does their relationship change over time? Again, dig for the emotions. How do they feel when they speak to each other? Is it loud and messy, or quiet and controlled? Do they ignore each other?

In THE MONSTORE, toward the end of the book, pesky little sister Gracie says to Zack, You’re the best brother ever! Mbestbrotherevery illustrator took the emotion of that line and translated it into Gracie giving her brother a loving, eyes-closed bear hug, with Zack surprised yet bursting with affection. I didn’t write all that out, however. That’s too much to say in a picture book! I let Gracie’s words speak for themselves…and James Burks did the rest. (I know you’re going to ask if I wrote an art note for this scene—I did not! The words expressed the sentiment and James illustrated them far better than I ever could have imagined.)

That scene is the turning point in the story, when the siblings learn to cooperate instead of plot against each other. There is a new kind of interaction between them. And how did the story get there? Through the actions and reactions that came before.

So when you’re writing, think of ACT-ing, my dear summer school students. And when you’re finished with your manuscript, you can take a bow!

tarafall2011picStreet magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been. Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books featuring magical places that adults never find.

Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, is available now from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Her other books coming soon are:

  • LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (Random House Children’s, 2015)
  • 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY (Disney*Hyperion, 2016)
  • NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016)

Tara is a member of SCBWI and speaks at conferences and events regarding picture books, brainstorming techniques, and social media for authors/ She is a life-long New Jersey resident. She lives in Somerset County with her husband and two young daughters. If they had a dog, it would be a small white fluffy thing named Schluffy. Contact Tara through her Website taralazar.comTwitter @taralazarPinterest pinterest.com/taralazar, or Facebook facebook.com/authortara.

Tara is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Tara’s tips on Bringing Out Your Character’s ACT!

Not registered for Kidlit Summer School yet? No worries! Click here to REGISTER.

184 comments on “Tara Lazar: Bring Out the ACT in CharACTer!

  1. As a former theater person myself, I really appreciate this perspective, Tara. While I’ve always seen my mss as movies in my head, I never thought to break them down in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Debbie Vilardi says:

    I act stuff out and look at myself in the mirror. I’ve heard Dickens did this. If he can, I can. I also took acting classes as a kid. Writing is all about getting into character and letting that character be who he is. Of course, I have to figure that out first and then there’s that whole plot thing. I’m on version nine of my middle grade and still working on getting to know the MC and secondary characters. I’ve realized I need to work on the interactions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never acted before so these are all great suggestions. As a pb writers, we are often told to read the story out loud to check flow, but to do so for longer stories and dialogue is wicked smaht! 😉


  4. Linda says:

    Thanks! Love this post, as well as your personal blog!


  5. Laurie L Young says:

    This is SO what I needed to read today. Emotion informs actions. Yes. Yes. Yes.


  6. ssuehler says:

    Thank you Tara. I am in a hotel somewhere in Indiana driving from Minneapolis to Boston. Today I talked to my solo passenger (a teddy bear) about the personalities of my characters. Tomorrow ‘we’ will act them out. Can’t really write while I am driving, but I can talk and talk and talk…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sandee Abern says:

    I love the idea of acting out the interactions between characters…that is a perfect way to revise…the curtain comes down on what doesn’t work! Love it! Also…emotion informs actions….makes so much sense. Thank you!


  8. jmvandenberg says:

    I will have to think about these three stages quite a bit. My MC is really good at asking questions and solving problems, but I don’t have his emotions described very well. Part of his issue is that for all his life he has been the only child in the town. I think he has tried to be as grown up as everyone else. So the question will be how does he react when things change. Does he act like an adult or a child? Does he react like an adult or a child? Does he interact with others like an adult or a child? I’ll have to see how these emotions work with the story. Thanks for giving me lots to ponder.


  9. Thanks! I will be looking at reACTions in my story tonight!


  10. Marge Gower says:

    Congrats on your upcoming books.

    Thanks for your explanation of Acting out your characters.

    ACTion – how a character behaves
    reACTion – how a character behaves to a specific situation
    interACTion – how characters relate to each other
    You all have made summer school an interesting learning experience.


  11. Helpful post, Tara, thanks! I especially like your advice on pacing through the scenes to make sure that there is something to illustrate on each page.


  12. Sue Frye says:

    Tara, I was waiting on this one. Thanks so much for sharing your magic with us!


  13. Poppy Wrote says:

    Tara, great post!


  14. yetteejo says:

    You are always thinking. I always learn something new from you . Thank you so much for sharing you thoughts and ideas.


  15. Dana Gall says:

    MUCH too shy to ACT in person…BUT, on paper, I can act on paper anyday! Thanks for sharing Tara, my character will be performing soon 🙂


  16. ellenramsey says:

    Thanks, Tara, for the ACTion, reACTion, interACTion idea–a splendid way to think about the interaction of character and plot.


  17. ACTion, reACTion, interACTion

    Thanks, Tara! This post couldn’t have come at a better time
    With my cape and tiara in place, okay, with my laptop and WIP in hand it’s time to take ACTing to a new level.


  18. writersideup says:

    OK, Tara, here’s my reACTion to this post: BRAVO!!! You and this Kidlit Summer School are on FIRE! 😀 Fantastic stuff you’re all giving us—not that I’m surprised! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Janet Smart says:

    Great post, Tara. Thanks so much!


  20. Charlotte says:

    Thank you, Tara, for sharing a great approach to bringing a character to life 🙂


  21. Great post! Thanks a bunch!


  22. Doris Stone says:

    Thanks, Tara for the wonderful post! I love your books!


  23. Take a bow & pick up the roses Tara. Mebe you should also be on stage.
    The three -ACT -ions are easy to remember & a challenge for me to stage in my p.b. manuscripts. With this stage direction I will get on with the show – many applause, applause.

    OT – any relation to Swifty?


  24. Love the 3 ACTS! Great way to remember it.


  25. Tara, thank you for your great perspective!


  26. Barb Massa says:

    Thanks for sharing your magic, Tara.


  27. Tara, thank you for the acting tips. This ties in beautifully with walking in our character’s shoes. My eyeballs almost popped out when I first read you were a hog-calling champion. Love your sense of humor. And kudos to you on your upcoming books! Super news. 🙂


  28. hmmmmm says:

    Getting out of my chair and trying on my characters is definitely going to be a stretch but a fun one. I’m looking forward to it — thanks!


  29. Debbie Austin says:

    Thanks for sharing from your own books, Tara. Write the emotions and leave the brushstrokes to the illustrator. Great!


  30. Rajani LaRocca says:

    As a former ACTress myself, I appreciate the advice! Thanks!


  31. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    Thanks for sharing this Tara.


  32. kpbock says:

    Excellent advice, Tara! I often think of my story as a play and envision what it would look like onstage. I guess I should probably get up and act out the parts as well!


  33. Thank you, lovely Tara! Your acting coaching helped me revisit a few troublesome scenes. 🙂


  34. Always love hearing from you, Tara! Action/Reaction/Interaction…that’s my golden nugget takeaway! Perfect. 😉


  35. Aimee Norris-Haburjak says:

    Thanks Tara! Great wisdom 😉 Excited to read all your books coming out!


  36. Anjali says:

    ACT, reAct and interACT. The recipe for a perfect book.


  37. Thank you, Tara! I’m reviewing manuscripts for opportunities to strengthen descriptions of actions, reactions, and interactions.


  38. lisakwillard says:

    Thank you, Tara! This really struck me! I need more reaction!
    Love your bio!


  39. Tara, thank you. Read this just after a writers workshop with critiques and one bit of feedback I received was that my words should be simplified, art notes forgotten, and action in words to lead… loved this… appreciate thinking about ACT.


  40. Kim Mounsey says:

    I always learn something when I read what you have to say Tara! Am going to revise my ms with **ACT** in mind right now. Thank you.


  41. JaNay BW says:

    I completely agree that there is a connection between writing and acting. Just as one must do a character study for the stage, the same is true for picture books and novels. Of course, the more you know about your characters, the better! Thanks!


  42. Beth Gallagher says:

    What a great post! I don’t act or perform, so generally picture particular scenes in my head like a movie. Thanks for such wonderful advice!


  43. Deborah Allmand says:

    Tara, what great insight! It really seems to me that this is extremely important when using rhyme. I took an advanced PB class and I believe your advice ‘action, reaction, and interaction’ will help me rework the manuscript into a much better book. Thanks so much. If I were in a comic book you would see the light bulb above my head!!


  44. abuckles says:

    I loved the idea of using “act” when developing characters. I’m going to incorporate that into my writing. I’m also a teacher and this will really help my students as well! Can’t wait for your books! 🙂


  45. Thanks for the insight Tara, I’ll totally use it to help my character who is very shy. Thanks again!


  46. mwinne2 says:

    Such a great post, Tara! Thanks for helping us see how to ACT with our characters. Excited to discover the true story behind “Why was 6 afraid of 7?” in your 2016 publication!


  47. Rita says:

    I love the idea of “acting out.” Thanks for sharing, Tara.


  48. Thanks, Tara! Using “ACT” should be really helpful as I learn to create strong PB characters. I have been so interested in discovering how subtle a PB text sometimes can be. It takes a lot of skill and practice to create convincing chatacters and believeable action in just a few words!


  49. This was something that I wasn’t really doing before, Tara. I appreciate your writing this post; I certainly will look at my current story and will plan to write with ‘ACT’ in mind. Thank you! :0)


  50. Val M says:

    Your connection of action and emotion is spot-on and reminds us to keep a pace that works while letting our characters react to the action and each other, without writing it out in text. Thank you Tara.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s